Bodies on the Gears of an Absent Apparatus

On the challenges of campus activism in the age of social media.

On December 2, 1964, at the beginning of the student movement that would capture the spirit of the decade, a young man named Mario Savio stood on the steps of Sproul Hall at U.C. Berkeley, facing an audience of angry and frustrated students. He told them, “there’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part— you can’t even passively take part.” Mario Savio died in 1996, at the age of 53, but his passionate rage remains preserved in dozens of grainy, black and white recordings uploaded to YouTube, his energy mummified in the digital static. His call to action, “to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, and upon the levers, and upon all the apparatus,” lives—infinitely repeatable—online.

Photo credits to NPR

Photo credits to NPR

Mario Savio’s “bodies upon the gears” speech came at the near-zenith of student activism in the United States, perhaps exceeded only by the mass student mobilizations less than four years later. No student movement in America will ever match that of the 1960s in its cultural and political significance. And no student leader will ever match Savio’s certainty and fury, his perfect balance of explicit indignation and just-under-the-surface ambition. His speech and the movement in which he participated were products of a particular time—for Savio, the machine was identifiable, its gears locatable, and the apparatus visible. The struggle for civil rights, the beginning of the Vietnam War, and the Baby Boomers’ entrance into universities coincided in an equation for political transformation.

Fifty years after Savio’s speech, it is difficult to say that the world is more just; certainly, it is more complex. Millennials have come of age (and are coming of age) at a time when both the president of the United States and sixty percent of America’s incarcerated population are people of color. The United States military has been at war for more than twelve, uninterrupted years, fighting or occupying countries in the middle east. Now, instead of napalm, there are drones. Yet despite the persistence of militarism, the unfulfilled promise of racial equality, and gaping income inequality, there have not been student mobilizations on the scale of those of the 60s. Occupy Wall Street, though important, was a blip compared to the March on Washington or the March on the Pentagon.

The languor that afflicts college campuses seems sadly ironic, given that many of today’s professors were yesterday’s student radicals. The movement that crested in the late sixties rapidly migrated, though not without resistance, towards academia. Todd Gitlin, the former president of SDS,  perhaps one of the student movement’s most influential groups, now teaches at Columbia University. Tom Hayden, one of the main authors of the Port Huron statement – the manifesto of the New Left student movement – teaches at UCLA. Mario Savio taught mathematics, physics and philosophy at Sonoma State University. And with the ascension of the Vietnam War generation to the ivory tower came changes to curricula. Ethnic and gender studies, post-colonialism, and critical theory were assimilated into the university. To paraphrase Todd Gitlin, the sixties radicals squandered the politics, but won the textbooks.

The battles over the old canon gave rise to a new one. Today, nearly every introductory literary theory course includes some kind of postcolonial scholarship. Even at Princeton, freshmen can read Frantz Fanon in a writing seminar. But it is unclear if the students who sit through these lessons understand the weight or the seriousness of the struggle that it took to get those texts into the university, or if they recognize the structures of oppression, not micro-aggressions or figurative violence but physical violence that postcolonial writers faced.

A recent New York Times op-ed suggests that despite the incorporation of postcolonial studies and, more generally, radical political thought, into academia, political consciousness on campus has not meaningfully increased. In the op-ed, titled “My So-Called Opinions,” the author, an NYU student named Zachary Fine, argues that “a new orthodoxy of multiculturalist ethics and ‘political correctness’” has rendered millennials incapable of boldly staking “out our own claims without trepidation.” Pluralism, Fine asserts, is the problem. “We continue to struggle when it comes to decisively avowing our most basic convictions,” he writes, because we are immobilized by the demand to recognize difference, fearful of offending others, and stripped of the skills to assess culture and fact. According to Fine, the lessons taught by professors who were activists in the 1960s have made millennials hopelessly inactive—instead of raising consciousness, they paralyzed it.

In “My So-Called Opinions,” Fine provides an example of an instance that he claims reveals the deleterious effects of the political correctness and pluralism taught at universities: a student says he prefers Shakespeare to the Haitian-American author Edwige Danticat, and the professor challenges the student “to apply a more ‘disinterested’ analysis to his reading so as to avoid entangling himself in a misinformed gesture of ‘postcolonial oppression.’ ” The student, so Fine says, never raised his hand in class again.

A student who tunes out and stops participating, who shrugs when a professor chides him for not being conscious of colonialism’s legacy, misunderstands the class’s message. He should not feel guilty or chastened for preferring the English playwright to the Haitian-American novelist. He should feel guilty for not showing any awareness of the United States’ ignominious history of policies towards Haiti that have left the country devastated and destitute. His professor cautions him about “entangling himself in a misinformed gesture of ‘postcolonial oppression’” because the casual dismissal of a Haitian-born author evinces ignorance of a terrible history—the American refusal to diplomatically recognize Haiti until sixty years after its independence from France, the 1914 military occupation of Haiti by America that lasted for two decades but affected the country for many more, and the American support for the father-son Duvalier dictatorship that terrorized and pauperized Haitians for thirty years.

Fine’s description of the encounter between the student and the professor reads like a vignette from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, the classic conservative call to arms, rehashed in the language of the 2010s. That such a critique from a professor would prompt a student to refrain from participating in class is suspicious, as is the student’s preference for the Bard of the English Renaissance to a contemporary prose writer.

Nevertheless, if we accept the Fine’s diagnosis of millennials’ intellectual sickness—that we are indecisive and unengaged because we do know what to think—then we must conclude either that the majority of professors inadequately explain the history and consequences of colonial oppression, or that the students are not listening well enough in comparative literature class. For if taught well, a lesson in postcolonial literature should, among other things, bring light to the fact that the same sinister global forces that silenced subaltern voices under colonial rule are still at play today. I suspect, though, that the cause of millennials’ aversion to tough political and ethical choices is neither the lack of adequate instruction nor millennials’ failure to take their classes seriously.

The author of “My So-Called Opinions”  also points to Vice, the rapidly growing youth-oriented news outlet that now has a show on HBO, as a site of millennials’ potentially dangerous cultural relativism. But Vice is emblematic of a different millennial cultural phenomenon. Vice is a carnival show of modern horrors where the American student can instantly access pictures of Ugandan prostitutes in a town devastated by HIV/AIDS, accounts of gun-toting drug dealers in Brazil’s favelas, and videos from the charnel houses that were once neighborhoods in Syria. There is no site better for internet class tourism than Vice, no better place to gawk at the tragedies of the world’s most cruel and violent locales. And though Vice’s writers sometimes (certainly more than they used to) locate the Western viewer or reader in the social totality that the particular atrocity of the day belongs to, Vice’s tendency is more sensationalistic than didactic. The Westerner is first and foremost a spectator, detached from the spectacle that he or she witnesses remotely. In a story about HIV/AIDS in Uganda, there is no mention of U.S. backing and aid to the autocratic president Yoweri Museveni, who has held power since 1986, nor of the disastrous policies he implemented. Likewise, in a voyeuristic profile of social-media-using drug dealers in Brazil, there is little attention paid to the U.S. demand for drugs that results in violence and the deaths of the global south’s inhabitants. The world’s poorest or most oppressed people become objects—exoticized, eroticized, and dehumanized in the eyes of Vice’s readers. Knowledge of the former’s plight sadly becomes a kind of social capital for the latter, who trade in stories of third world horrors.

Millennials have unprecedented access to countless images and stories of barbarism that are posted, tweeted, and streamed around the web. To accept the premise that the cause for millennial inaction and disengagement is indecision, as Fine claims, is to concede that an entire generation is either callous or ignorant. Either they have managed to insulate themselves from the horrors visible everyday all across the internet, or they see the horrors and simply ignore them. But I am also unwilling to accept such an explanation for the generation’s  apparent lack of political engagement.

In the video of Mario Savio on the steps of Sproul Hall, he seems to stare into the face of the apparatus that he exhorted his peers to disrupt. His urgency and determination suggest a tangibility and proximity to the mechanisms of oppression that now feel out of reach. The technologies that once promised to bring the average person closer to the decision-making nexus of power have instead created an even greater distance between the government and the governed. Information about atrocities committed thousands of miles away has never been more readily available, and, at the same time, the tools to stop those atrocities have never been more unavailable—all we can do is watch. We become spectators to the brutal spectacle in which we play a role.

Social media’s political potential has proven terribly dissapointing when compared to what was promised by the triumphalism of tech-enthusiasts and think-tank idea-salesmen. A tweet can bring a mob to the gates of the capital, but Twitter cannot steer a social movement any more than a USB cable can—direction demands tangible political organization, motivation, and solidarity. Most reasonable millennials, I think, recognize this. But even those who do not remain frustrated by their inability to act. Disengagement is not the sign of indifference or indecision— but the symptom of impotence when set against billionaire businessmen and multinational corporations that almost always get their way. Even at Princeton, where proximity to the levers of power is closer than most other places, news of the next global outrage is greeted with a shrug. Angst-ridden, snarky tweets echo out into the already-sonorous social media void, filled with the clamor of everyone else’s causes of the day. Even buried in the hopeful posts on Facebook is the kernel of exasperation that comes with the demand to be realistic.

Millennials seem disengaged and passive not because we do not know what to think, but because we cannot do what we think should be done. Our ability to witness incredible violence occurring on the other side of the world corresponds to our inability to do anything about it. For Mario Savio and the student activists of the 1960s, the means and end were clear—end the war and segregation, by any means necessary. And while some fault them for libertine excess, at least they successfully mobilized themselves.

The activists of the 1960s had something very tangible to lose, something far greater than the fights over recognition and terminology that seem to pervade today’s activist communities. Unlike millennials, every young man faced the terrifying prospect of having to fight in an unjust war. Brave and tireless civil rights activists fought the Jim Crow laws that governed everyday life in the southern states. Viewed with historical hindsight, it seems that then, it was easier to see what needed fixing and what needed to be done. Today, it is more difficult. The gears of the machine are protected by surveillance devices, the wheels defended by drones, and all of the apparatus hidden behind a firewall.

Millennials have not grown indifferent to human catastrophes because they learned to recognize difference and accept what is foreign to them. Millennials’ alleged narcissism does not come from their unwillingness to hold strong opinions. Pluralism is not the problem. The problem is the scale of global injustice and its intractability. The gears of the apparatus have grown so big that even if we found them and tried to put our bodies upon them, it is unlikely that we could make them stop.

Josh Leifer is a sophomore studying economic history. He is particularly interested in issues of class, labor, and economic justice. Before enrolling in Princeton, he lived, learned, and taught for a year in Israel, where he was a member of All That’s Left, an anti-occupation collective. He continues to be involved in peace activism and recently ran a coexistence and dialogue program for Israeli Jewish and Arab youths. In his free time, Josh enjoys playing the bass.

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